I enjoy picking out and photographing the small (and sometimes not so small) details of buildings. Indeed, I can find myself omitting to photograph the building as a whole as it’s often the details that capture my imagination. Wherever I travel I find building details that intrigue me.
Art Nouveau in Riga
Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it is also known, was an art and architecture movement of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, at its height 1890–1910. This was an art form that crossed genres, from architecture to interior design to jewellery to textiles, and more. It proposed that art should be a way of life, and that everyday items could be beautiful too. It was inspired by nature – flowers, animals, natural forms. I love the way that its shapes flow organically, and the combination of fluidity of design with the rigidity of stone makes buildings in this style particularly appealing to me.
And Riga is the place to see them! It is famous for its large number of well-preserved (or more often, well-restored) Art Nouveau buildings. These are dotted across the city, but there is a particular concentration of them in one area on and around Elizabetes and Alberta streets.
Art Nouveau in Riga - 4a Strēlnieku iela
This is one of the most dramatic and dazzling buildings in the district, 4a Strēlnieku iela. It dates from 1905 and is one of many by perhaps the best-known architect of Riga’s Art Nouveau period, Mikhail Eisenstein (father of the famous film director Sergei Eisenstein). Eisenstein’s main concept was that even the smallest thing could be beautiful. I loved the Wedgewood-blue and white colour scheme of this building, and the over-the-top ornamentation with snakes and even robot-like creatures.
Art Nouveau in Riga - Elizabetes Street
These are two of my favourite images from Riga. On the left, a detail of one of the most famous Art Nouveau buildings in the city, 10b Elizabetes Street, (again by Mikhail Eisenstein). It dates from 1903 and is extremely colourful, adorned with a rich mix of masks, peacocks, sculptural elements and geometrical figures.
And on the right, a detail of no 33 in the same street, yet again the work of Mikhail Eisenstein. In this, Eisenstein made use of elements of almost every historical architectural style that he could think of, from Roman design through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and on to Classicism. There are decorative masks, stylised plants and geometric forms galore, and all set off, when I was there, by some beautiful purple flowers planted on the balconies.
Art Nouveau in Riga - 13 Alberta iela
This is 13 Alberta iela, another of Eisenstein’s designs and one influenced by his distress at the news of the defeat of Russian fleet in the Russian-Japanese war in 1904. The façade is dominated by two large masks of screaming women (this is one of them) and above these are structures in the shape of upended cones which support the bay windows on the attic floor.
I'll finish this brief look at some of the Art Nouveau glories of Riga with a selection of a few more details:
On Tuchlauben, Vienna
For architecture from the same era Vienna is also a delight (and for other reasons too, including food and drink!) The city is rich in architectural details from many eras in fact; the city offers Gothic, Baroque, Art Nouveau and modern in abundance, although it is probably the Baroque for which it is best known.
Not being an expert, I am not always able to be sure of the period from which a building dates, especially when so many of them have been reconstructed or redeveloped over the years, but in Vienna it is the flourishes of Baroque and the more recent flamboyance of much of Art Nouveau that continually catches my eye.
The building above and right is on Tuchlauben, an elegant street that leads north west from Stephansplatz. These are caryatids, defined by Wikipedia as ‘a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head’. I love to see them and to photograph them as they are usually so elegant and beautiful. I especially like the way that here the caryatid is in a contrasting stone to the rest of the building.
The male equivalent of a caryatid is a telamon. This one (left) is on the Verwaltungsgerichtshofs, on the Judenplatz, which gets its name because it was at the centre of Jewish life in Vienna in medieval times. The Jews lived in a ghetto of just 70 houses, their backs turned to surrounding streets to form a wall, and in the centre was this large square.
Today the square has a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, the work of the English artist Rachel Whiteread. But back to the Verwaltungsgerichtshofs. This houses the Austrian Administrative Court of Justice and was formerly the Bohemian Court Chancellery. It is very ornate with female figures above the entrances representing the cardinal virtues of moderation, wisdom, justice and bravery, and a telamon either side of each. High above an angel blows a trumpet, flanked by more figures.
An address in stone, Vienna
Here is something a bit different. These little animals in the past served as addresses for a population who might not all be literate. I found this one somewhere in the streets between Stubentor U-Bahn station and the Scwedenplatz – you will have to keep your eyes open for this or similar creatures when you visit Vienna.
Let’s finish our time in this beautiful city with a few photos of one of my favourite buildings to photograph there, the Hofburg Palace, or more specifically its Michaelertrakt – the 19th century St Michael Wing, named after the church it faces. The graceful curve of this building is broken by a grand archway, either side of which a series of sculptural groups tell the story of the labours of Hercules (the work of Italian sculptor Lorenzo Mattielli). The structure is surmounted by a striking central green dome 50 metres high, two smaller ones ornament the ends, there are eagles, trumpeting angels, statuesque figures and coats of arms – and the whole is fabulously Viennese!
In the old town, Ancona
The warm colours of Italian houses feature in many photos, including my own, but the details of letter-boxes, signs, carvings of saints etc., are to my eye equally picture-worthy. Here’s a selection:
In the old town, Ancona
Palazzo Fava da San Domenico, Bologna
Bologna house details
Building detail, Serra San Quirico
- a lovely small village in Marche
As a Roman Catholic country, Italy has many small shrines to the Virgin Mary on the walls of houses:
House in Monopoli
In Manarola in the Cinque Terre
Elsewhere in Europe
Here is just a random selection of little details captured in a variety of places:
Above a door in the Hors-Château area of Liège, Belgium
And above another Belgian door, this time in Ghent
This is becoming a theme!
Above a door in Krakow
And in Faro, Portugal
And while we’re in Portugal, we have to include some street signs, made from beautiful azulejos, the traditional glazed ceramic tiles:
Let's leave Europe and explore further afield (further for me, that is). If I had to pick out my favourite countries for this sort of detail-spotting, Uzbekistan would be high on the list (along with India, but that is covered extensively in my other blogs).
Detail of the Emir Zade Mausoleum at the Shah-i-Zinda
The well-restored (some would say possibly too well-restored) ancient buildings of Samarkand are covered in the intricate tile mosaics typical of this style of Islamic architecture, with blue the dominant colour. As one of our travelling companions, Els, exclaimed at the Shah-i-Zinda, it was indeed at times ‘too much for my eyes!’
Dome of the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda
The Shah-i-Zinda is the holiest site in Samarkand. According to legend, the prophet Elijah led Kussam-ibn-Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to the Afrosiab hill north east of Samarkand's current location. The legend tells how Kussam came to bring Islam to this Zoroastrian area, and was attacked and beheaded for his trouble. It was believed that despite this he continued to live, and indeed is alive still in an underground palace on this site, which now bears his name; ‘Shah-i-Zinda’ means ‘the Living King’.
The Gur Emir – detail of dome
The Gur Emir is the mausoleum of Tamerlaine. Wherever you go in Uzbekistan you’ll find it impossible to avoid hearing that name. It seems every nation needs its heroes, and when the Soviets left the country and their heroic statues of Lenin and Marx were pulled down, it was Tamerlaine who took their places on plinths around the country and who came to symbolise for Uzbeks their new-found independence and freedom. Observers from outside might question his credentials as a hero – this is after all a man who, in attempting to conquer the world, left an estimated 17 million people dead in his wake. But in Samarkand in particular he left the legacy of great peace, prosperity and splendour. Naturally then his mausoleum is of a scale to impress.
The Gur Emir – interior detail
An unnamed poet is said to have exclaimed on seeing it, ‘Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it’, and you can sort of see what he meant.
Bibi Khanum Mosque
Bibi Khanum was Tamerlaine’s great work, his attempt to build a mosque larger and more splendid than the Muslim world had ever seen. But his ambitions here overstretched the capabilities of his craftsmen, and the mosque was doomed almost from the start, though not from want of effort. He employed the very best slaves and workers, imported 95 elephants from India to haul the wagons and, when he judged the portal too low, had it pulled down and ordered it to be rebuilt. He himself superintended the work, coming to the site each day in his litter, and arranging for meat to be thrown down to the men digging the foundations rather than have them stop working for a moment. The result was a mosque of never-before seen proportions. But this splendour wasn’t to last. Almost from the first day it was in use, the mosque began to crumble, putting worshippers in peril. No one seems to know for certain why this was – maybe the building was simply too ambitious for the technologies of the day. Whatever the reason, this is one ancient structure that has so far defied the attempts of modern builders to restore it properly – and I found it all the more compelling for that very reason!
I will no doubt write more about Uzbekistan in some future blog here, but for now here are just a few more photos from our time there:
In Khiva - the Khuna Ark, and the Juma Mosque
In the Applied Arts Museum, Tashkent
I could clearly go on a long while with this blog entry, but will finish with just one more place where I found lots of photogenic details, among the earthquake-devastated churches of Antigua Guatemala. This was the country’s third capital. It was founded in 1543 when an eruption of the Vulcan Agua (Water Volcano) destroyed the second capital in the valley of Almononga. In 1566 the city received the name of ‘Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala’ (Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Caballeros of Guatemala), or Santiago de Guatemala for short. Despite the ravages of several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the city was the capital and economic centre of the whole Kingdom of Guatemala (today’s southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.). But in 1773 came the most destructive of all the earthquakes, the Santa Marta, and much of the city’s political and religious infrastructure was destroyed. A proposal was drawn up to move the capital for a third time, and despite some opposition, in 1775, a royal letter was written to order the foundation of a new capital. Left largely in ruins this city might perhaps have crumbled away completely, but enough fabric and people remained to keep it alive. Today’s Santiago de Guatemala, Antigua, is a National Monument and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. At its heart is an almost perfect grid of streets and avenues, each of them a gem, lined with picturesque houses (many single-storey because of the constant threat from the forces of nature) and dotted with the skeletons of those ruined colonial churches.
Iglesia de Santa Clara, Antigua Guatemala
The convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1699 for a small group of six nuns who moved here from Mexico. With support from the city’s wealthier citizens they constructed a church and convent buildings between 1703 and 1705, but these were destroyed in the earthquake of 1717. The remains standing today are those of a new church and convent started in 1723 and finished in 1734 – and destroyed in 1773.
Ruins, Catedral de Santiago, Antigua Guatemala
Antigua’s cathedral might well stand as a metaphor for the city itself: built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and finally rebuilt for a third time but on much less grand a scale. Now the ruins of its former grandeur lie in the shadows of today’s more modest structure.
I hope this blog has given you a sense of why I love to look for the details of buildings and, as I said at the start, often focus (literally!) on these at the expense of the whole.